Rail Safety the Focus of Spokane Radio Program

Courtney Wallace, regional director of public affairs for BNSF Railway, recently spoke with Mike Fitzsimmons on his popular 920 Newscope show on KXLY Radio in Spokane. Wallace and Fitzsimmons spent the hour discussing trains carrying coal through Spokane, with an emphasis on ways that BNSF railway is working to improve rail safety.

As Wallace said upfront, BNSF has spent a significant amount of time studying coal dust, noting that the railroad “has been on the forefront of studying coal dust for over a decade.” She went on to talk about BNSF’s efforts to regulate coal dust, including using a topping agent to coat the coal loads, as well as the shape of the coal cars, which are strategically formed like bread loaf pans to regulate dust. BNSF’s re-spray facilities, like the one in Pasco, apply a glue-like topping agent that helps reduce coal dust by at least 85 percent.

Fitzsimmons, a self-professed train enthusiast, mentioned that he had spent substantial time watching trains with his children, and had never noticed any evidence of coal dust along the rail line. Recounting a recent outing, he said there was “fresh snow on the ground, pure white as it was. Coal train comes through at mainline speed, I couldn’t see a speck of anything on that snow.”

Above all, Wallace emphasized that BNSF railway has an exemplary history of rail safety and environmental stewardship, working to keep communities safe and clean. “Our record on moving hazardous materials from point A to point B without any incident is 99.987%,” she said.

The railways are community partners in the Spokane area and across Washington. As Wallace noted, BNSF employs nearly 4,000 men and women in Washington, and 500 in the greater Spokane area alone. The railroads are an integral part of the state’s economy, and they take safety and environmental compliance seriously.

Millennium Enters Sixth Year Of Permitting Wait

Blow out the candles. February 2017 is now behind us, and the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals project has officially been awaiting permitting for five full years.

At this point, Washington is at a crossroads. Regulators have a choice – stop the delays on Millennium’s project and be remembered for ushering in a period of economic growth and prosperity, or continue to delay the terminal and go down in history as the group that pushed the limits of economic self-sabotage.

With that in mind, let’s look at some other major construction projects undertaken in the United States for reference. The Empire State Building, nearly synonymous with big construction, took one year and forty five days to build. The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco took four years to complete, and Seattle’s own CenturyLink Field took just two years to finish. Millennium, in contrast, still remains in the permitting phase after five full years.

And it’s clear that the revenues and economic benefits the project would produce for Longview, Cowlitz County and the state have been missed. According to Millennium, the project would generate a total of $5.28 million annually in tax revenues. If the project had been completed in 2015, as Millennium expected, it would have generated two years of tax revenues at this point, or a total of $10.56 million. And with all of that money, the state could have purchased 356,396 6th grade history textbooks for Washington students, financed 3,815 stays in state hospitals, or paid the salaries of 158 police officers for a year.

Millennium’s five year wait has deprived the state of needed economic growth for entirely too long. Southwest Washington desperately needed the jobs Millennium’s project would have created five years ago. With an unemployment rate in Cowlitz County that is still higher than the state’s average, that condition has not changed. Washington is the most trade dependent state in the country. Tax revenues and wages from trade related projects finance everything from healthcare to everyday living expenses. The state truly needs projects like Millennium’s to function.

It’s time to let Millennium proceed and allow all Washingtonians to share the project’s economic benefits. The extravagant five year permitting wait casts trade-dependent Washington as a state in conflict with its own identity, and the measureable benefits foregone from lost tax revenues are striking. Millennium’s project is a community investment, and the community can wait no longer.

Millennium’s Project Is Bigger than Washington

Supporters of the Millennium Bulk Terminals project have anticipated that 2017 will be the beginning of the end in the state and federal approval process for the company’s proposed export facility. But as we have come to expect with this project, there will always be those who try to push political agendas at the expense of vital infrastructure investment.

This month was no different. Outgoing Washington State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark denied a sublease needed for one of the Millennium project’s loading docks in Longview. While the knee jerk reaction by the media portrayed this decision as a “blow” to the terminals’ final approval, CEO Bill Chapman assured everyone that the decision “has no effect on the project,” and described Goldmark’s action as a “symbolic gesture” by a Commissioner before he exits office.

A recent piece in Fox News quoted Rob McKenna, a former Washington attorney general, on the announcement, who cited a potential violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Inter-State Commerce Clause.

The Inter-State Commerce Clause says that the flow of commerce between states should not be impeded, and in the case of Goldmark’s actions, the move is a clear slight to coal interests in Wyoming and Montana that would ship the fuel via trains to Washington for export. McKenna stated:

“These ports are for the Western United States, and the landlocked states who want to be able to export products overseas need access to those ports. I think it raises real constitutional issues when states systematically try to deny them access to those ports.”

McKenna is absolutely right. Millennium’s project is a development for the Western United States as a whole, and there is much more at stake than the jobs in Southwest Washington. Asian demand for coal is growing. In fact, China breaks ground on a new coal plant every week, and India, Vietnam, and Japan are expanding their capacity as well. This increased demand presents a tremendous opportunity for coal producers in Wyoming and Montana. But as landlocked states, they are only able to transport their coal to ports on the West Coast via rail.

As CEO Bill Chapman noted, Goldmark’s actions are largely symbolic and fall in line with other environmentalist efforts on the West Coast to oppose fossil fuel related projects at all costs. But it is important to keep the bigger picture in mind. A violation of the U.S. Constitution cannot be justified by the whims of any one faction, and Millennium’s project would support jobs and families in Wyoming, Montana, Washington and every state along the rail lines in between. Opponents of Millennium would be wise to keep in mind the greater implications of their fight.

Maritime Expert Calls For Emphasis On Infrastructure In 2017

In a recent op-ed in The Hill, Dave Matsuda, a former U.S. Maritime Administrator under the Obama administration, calls for bipartisan cooperation to increase infrastructure investment under the new administration. For Washington, he says, momentum created by President-elect Trump’s promised commitment to infrastructure investing is a great opportunity to address regulatory and policy issues around the state’s famed maritime sector.

Matsuda argues that Washington’s “legacy as a natural corridor to and from the Pacific” is dependent upon a “strong, well-integrated transportation sector.” However, he cautions, “even with existing infrastructure and Washington’s coastal position, the current reality is the state continues to lose ground to competition.”

In order to reverse this decline, Matsuda points to recommendations laid out in a policy brief he authored alongside Steve Rothberg, a maritime expert and partner at Mercator International, a maritime consulting firm, late last year. The report points to three primary challenges to maritime growth and notes several corresponding policy reforms that state regulators and officials can carry out to ensure Washington ports can successfully compete with other growing maritime hubs in North America.

One of the challenges mentioned, the issue of a lack of clear project siting and permitting process, is particularly salient for Washington today. The Millennium Bulk Terminals project has been awaiting permitting for nearly five years, facing an onslaught of red tape and environmental mitigation mandates that are unprecedented. The competition has found ways to deal with these problems – Canada passed a ‘shot clock’ bill that mandates completion of permitting within 18 months – and as Matsuda notes, “if Washington bears a reputation for being more unsupportive to maritime and port business than other states, new project opportunities will look elsewhere for siting and existing employers will eventually follow.”

With infrastructure investing a high priority on the new administration’s docket, Washington should follow suit and put policies in place that encourage investors to finish projects and create the economic growth that the state needs. Stalling infrastructure investments like Millennium’s project will only hold back job growth and push businesses away from Washington and towards the competition. In 2017, it’s time to embrace economic growth and ease Washington’s regulatory environment.

Read the full piece here.

Southwest Washington is Poised for A Successful 2017

Last week, an article in the Vancouver Business Journal featured comments from the Columbia River Economic Development Council (CREDC) who forecast that 2017 will be a year of growth and success for Southwest Washington. The piece pointed to major infrastructure projects like Millennium Bulk Terminals’ export dock as a source of this success. These projects, they write, are poised to bring economic growth to some of the state’s poorest areas, however, they face several challenges to achieving that growth.

The piece discusses Southwest Washington’s economic outlook by county, and 2017 looks to be a good year for Cowlitz. The past several years have seen capital investment pouring in to the area, and the results have begun to show. As the article notes, “1,364 new jobs” were added in 2016 and “total potential industrial investment is about $4 billion.”

Despite this growth, the county’s unemployment rate remains well above the state average at 7.2 percent, and many of the projects expected to bring that number down face Washington’s challenging regulatory landscape.

Ted Sprague, executive director of the Cowlitz County Economic Development Council, commented on the onerous regulatory environment in Washington, saying that “consistency and timeliness of permitting” is the biggest challenge facing Cowlitz County. “There doesn’t seem to be a real urgency on behalf of our permitting partners,” he added.

Southwest Washington has all of the pieces in place for a successful 2017, and yet the state continues to cripple essential infrastructure investments with overreaching regulatory protocols. The good news is that this year we will see the release of the final state and federal Environmental Impact Statements on Millennium’s project. After nearly five years of waiting, it is time to let this critical development put folks in the community back to work.

Read the full piece here.

Labor Leader Discusses Harmful Effects of Washington’s Regulatory Policies with WRC

This week, Larry Brown, legislative & political director of Aerospace Machinists Union District Lodge 751 was featured on the Washington Research Council’s (WRC) weekly podcast “Policy Today” discussing a serious issue threatening Washington’s economic viability: unprecedented state environmental regulations. Notably Brown talks about the arbitrary and excessive nature of Washington’s review process which discourages investment in the state and threatens many good-paying jobs.

Brown touted the many benefits projects such as proposed coal and oil export facilities – the major targets of these subjective reviews – and noted the countless jobs at putting at risk for an agenda that will have minimal impact on the energy industry.

“We would love to see some effective public policy with respect to reducing the greenhouse gasses and reducing our carbon footprint. Unfortunately this is symbolic and is not going to stop China from burning coal. It’s merely going to prevent us from benefiting – as far as the jobs are concerned and the business is concerned – from that coal.”

The podcast also featured Emily Makings, a senior research analyst at the WRC, who highlighted a special report released last fall by WRC on this topic titled, “The Expanded SEPA Has Reduced Regulatory Certainty in Washington.” Noting how in 2013-2014 the Department of Ecology expanded the scope of the state’s environmental review on certain projects to include end-use greenhouse gas emissions of any products shipped, she stated, “the entire process is now at regulators discretion and there is no way to know what projects in the future might be subject to this expanded review which creates uncertainty for business and increases timeline for permitting.” Specifically noting the nearly five year timeline of the Millennium Bulk Terminals project in Longview, she concludes that in addition to lengthy permitting timelines for businesses looking to invest in Washington, this process “reduces our base competitiveness.”

To listen to the full podcast from WRC, you can click here.

Developing Economies Drive Projected Coal Plant Construction

With population growth projected to continue in Asia and the Pacific rim region well into the next decade and beyond, those countries will need to adjust accordingly. How they will handle this growth remains to be seen, but one thing is certain; a rising population will also mean steady growth in demand for energy in the region – as many sources have indicated – especially for electricity.

The problem is there is already a gap between availability of energy and our current world population. Currently, nearly one-fifth of the world’s population does not have access to electricity according to estimates by International Energy Agency (IEA). So with population growth expected to exacerbate this gap in the next few years, countries such as China and India are taking matters into their own hands to change the cycle of “energy poverty” and coal is playing a sizeable role.

A map from the U.S Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy details the number of proposed coal-fired power plant projects by country. The map shows that tremendous amount of new capacity is expected to be filled in the Pacific Rim by coal.

The map makes clear that even as the world adjusts and moves toward new energy sources, there remains considerable demand for coal and other traditional fossil fuels. The IEA recently projected in that in 2040, fossil fuels will still provide as much as 75 percent of the world’s energy. And, as the Chamber’s map explains in great detail, although there are proposed coal-fired plants on every continent, most regions are dwarfed in comparison to China, India and others in Asia who, between them, have nearly one million megawatts of proposed capacity on the way.

To feed the growing global appetite for affordable energy, Asian countries will continue to look for willing trading partners to provide these resources. Power plants in China and India will burn coal with very little care about the fuel’s origin or who will reap the benefits of that trade.

Opportunity is knocking from across the Pacific, and it’s high time that we answer the door. Export projects like Millennium Bulk Terminals in Longview are more than economically validated by projected demand for coal in Asia. Washington has a chance to beat the competition and make the most of this opportunity. For too long, projects like Millennium Bulk Terminals have had their potential stifled by an arduous regulatory environment. Millennium is an investment in Washington’s long-term economic future, and it’s time for the project to move forward.

Read the full piece here.

Everett Herald Editorial Board Urges State to Finish Millennium EIS Process

Cowlitz County needs the jobs that infrastructure projects like Millennium can provide- that was the overarching sentiment presented by The Everett Herald in a 744-word editorial on November 25th.

The paper rests the majority of its argument on the economic benefits of the proposal and highlights stark differences in unemployment rates between Snohomish and King Counties and rural areas of Washington like Cowlitz County. The latter, they note, have seen wages increase “only 17 percent to $26.08 an hour” since 1990, while the state as a whole saw an increase of “47.5 percent to $32.98 an hour” over the same time frame. Given the discrepancy, it is no wonder that Millennium’s project has seen an outpouring of support from a diverse coalition of labor, agriculture, and other community leaders:

“Those numbers explain the support in that region for the Millennium Bulk Terminal in Longview, a project to clean up and repurpose the site of the former Reynolds Aluminum smelter, expanding its facilities as a export terminal for coal and other bulk products, such as wheat, timber, alumina and apples.”

The editorial also addresses the unprecedented scale and scope of Millennium’s review process and argues that although environmental reviews must remain thorough, “there should be reasonable limits to the impacts all projects have to address.” The project has been an exemplary steward of the environment throughout the process, and as the editorial points out, “There’s no reason to make Millennium pay for China’s climate responsibilities.”

With an unemployment rate nearly twice as high as areas surrounding Puget Sound, Cowlitz County needs good-paying jobs that can support families. Recent hearings on the draft federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project saw supportive testimonies from hundreds of citizens, including workers in Longview who confirmed they travel as far as Portland, OR, for work daily to make ends meet.

It’s time to return Southern Washington to economic prosperity. With the comment period on the draft federal EIS for the project complete, the wait for the final evaluations begins. As Governor Inslee himself said, “The permitting process has been a very extensive process.” We agree, Governor Inslee. Let’s get this review across the finish line and bring jobs back to Cowlitz County.

Read the full piece here.

BNSF Settlement Leaves Environmental Groups in the Dust

BNSF Railway reached a settlement this week on a nuisance lawsuit brought against the company by extreme environmental interest groups who for years have falsely alleged that dust from uncovered coal cars will lead to water and air pollution in the state.

In a statement released after the settlement was announced, the Alliance said, “Today’s settlement agreement by BNSF in the outrageous $4.6 trillion litigation brought by overzealous environmental groups underscores what we’ve all known for years: that coal dust is not an issue in this region.”

The false notion that coal dust is a problem has long been a rallying cry of opponents of economic growth in Washington. But unfortunately for them, the facts have never backed up their assertions.

In 2013 when the suit was filed, environmentalists pointed to a biased analysis by a University of Washington employee which alleged to have found coal dust impacts from trains. After that brief was released, experts from around the region and the globe weighed in debunking those claims. For instance, Roger O. McClellan, an internationally recognized expert in toxicology shot down the shame analysis in a Seattle Times op-ed urging, instead, for a fact-based approach to judgments:

Just because a piece of coal is found in the water or coal dust is found near a rail track does not mean humans are exposed to it. Coal is not a substance that breaks down easily. Coal is relatively innocuous. Simply moving it by trains or trucks or barges does not equate to a risk to the environment or human health.

Then two years ago, the Northwest Clean Air Agency found that coal dust from rail traffic wasn’t a concern to Washington’s air, water or quality of life. And this position was recently reiterated in the most comprehensive and extensive reviews ever conducted in southwest Washington during the compilation of the draft Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) for the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals by Cowlitz County, the state, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In fact, the Washington State Department of Ecology analysis stated as much when they found that “there would be no unavoidable and significant environmental impacts from coal dust” tied to the project.

Anyone trying to claim anything else about coal dust is simply promoting an extreme agenda, regardless of the facts.

Millennium CEO Bill Chapman said it best himself at a recent hearing on the draft EIS, “If complaints continue about dust, we will know it’s a device just to deceive. Facts do matter. We will not be fooled by opponents who do not listen to facts.”

BNSF is a good corporate citizen to the state of Washington, and continues to make significant investments, such as the $26 million spent on rail improvements at the respray facility in Pasco, to improve rail traffic. This settlement, to bring an end to protracted and costly litigation, recognizes the fact that coal will continue to be safely transported through the Northwest, just as it has for well over a century.

Let’s continue to show regulators and environmental critics that the facts matter, and the fact is that Millennium’s proposal would rejuvenate one of the poorest areas in the state by turning a wilting industrial piece of land into a vibrant economic and environmentally sound engine for change. Every voice counts, so submit your comments here today.

There is Still a Need for Powder River Basin Coal

Opponents of coal may benefit from knowing that not all coal is created equal.

A recent article in the Casper Star Tribune reported that Cloud Peak energy announced plans to export one million tons of coal to Asian markets in the coming months. But this coal isn’t like others: this is Powder River Basin (PRB) coal.

PRB coal is sub-bituminous meaning it contains lower levels of SO2 than Appalachian coal, and certainly less than Chinese coal. It is found in abundance in Wyoming and Montana, where Cloud Peak is based, and most importantly, it is a cleaner alternative to what Asian consumers currently have at their disposal.

With limited west coast options for exporting the products, but a growing overseas demand, Cloud Peak will look to their existing terminals in British Columbia to send the coal abroad. It’s the same coal burned by the same plants producing the same net emissions that regulators have so stringently charged Millennium with mitigating. The only difference is who will collect the export spoils and tax dollars. And this time, it will not be Washington.

Fortunately, it is not too late for Washington to capitalize on rising demand for coal across the Pacific. Recent public hearings on the draft federal Environmental Impact Statement for Millennium’s proposal saw a strong turnout of supporters who have made known that they want this project. After four long years, it is time to capitalize on this demand and bring the ensuing tax dollars and wages to families in Washington who need them.

Although the hearings have passed, we still must show regulators our resolve on this project. The public comment period runs through November 29th, and every voice counts. Submit your comments here today.

Submit your comments HERE.